John Adams Refuses To Condemn Benjamin Church

John Adams withheld judgment when an intercepted letter revealed Dr. Benjamin Church, the Continental Army’s surgeon general, to be a British spy. But he immediately wrote Abigail to tell her he wouldn’t be writing ‘a syllable of anything of any moment’ to her.

It was October 10, 1775, and Adams was in Philadelphia meeting with the Continental Congress. The news about Church stunned the delegates.

Church had been the army’s chief physician of the Medical Service of the Continental Army since July 27, 1775. He wouldn’t have the job for much longer.

Benjamin Church was born in Newport, R.I., on Aug. 24, 1738, a descendant of the Col. Benjamin Church who led the hunt for and killing of King Philip during King Philip’s War.

Benjamin Church

Benjamin Church

After graduating from Harvard, Church studied medicine and built up a respected medical practice in Boston.

He portrayed himself as an ardent patriot through his writingsand oratory. Some suspected him of being a secret Tory sympathizer.

He was elected a delegate to the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in 1774 and made a member of its Committee of Safety. In March 1775, the Provincial Congress voted to give him and Dr. Joseph Warren 500 pounds to purchase medical supplies for the armed forces.

Shortly after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Church insisted on entering Boston and was seen with British Gen. Thomas Gage. He claimed to have been arrested and released.

In May, Church went to Philadelphia to consult with the Continental Congress about the defense of Boston. While there he was appointed chief physician of the Continental Army.

In July 1775, Church sent a coded letter to a British major. The letter was intercepted and sent to Gen. George Washington in September. The letter was found to include an account of the American forces in Boston – but nothing particularly useful to the British — and a declaration of Church’s devotion to the Crown.

On Oct. 10, John Adams wrote a letter to Abigail from Philadelphia:

Abigail Adams

Abigail Adams

…The surprising intelligence we have in private letters concerning the Director of the Hospital, has made me more cautious of writing than ever. I must be excused from writing a syllable of anything of any moment. My letters have been and will be nothing but trifles. I don’t choose to trust the post. I am afraid to trust private travelers. They may peep. Accidents may happen; and I would avoid, if I could, even ridicule, but especially mischief.

Pray, bundle up every paper, not already hid, and conceal them in impenetrable darkness. Nobody knows what may occur.

Samuel Ward, a delegate from Newport, R.I., wrote to his brother Henry on Oct. 11:

I rec’d your’s of 3d. inst. and very readily allow it to balance our literary accounts to that time. Dr. Church, Who could have thought or even suspected it, a man who seemed to be all animation in the cause of his Country, highly caressed, employed in several very honorable and lucrative departments, and in full possession of the confidence of his country, what a complication of madness and wickedness must a soul be filled with to be capable of such Perfidy! what punishment can equal such horrid crimes; I communicated the affair to the Massachusetts Delegates. They could hardly conceive it possible.

On Oct. 18, John Adams wrote to his friend James Warren:

John Adams

John Adams

The letter of Dr. [Church] is the oddest Thing imaginable. There are so many Lies in it, calculated to give the Enemy an high Idea of our Power and Importance, as well as so many Truths tending to do us good that one knows not how to think him treacherous: Yet there are several Strokes, which cannot be accounted for at least by me, without the Supposition of Iniquity.

In Short I endeavor to suspend my Judgment. Don’t let us abandon him for a Traitor without certain Evidence.

But there is not so much Deliberation in many others, or so much Compassion.

Church was dismissed from his post on Oct. 17 and incarcerated until 1778, when he was released and banished. He sailed presumably to Martinique but was lost at sea.







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